When it comes to sunglasses, looks aren’t everything

As warm weather approaches, we gladly shed our coats and boots for shorts and flip flops — all topped off with a pair of sunglasses.

But while many of us will look for stylish eyewear, the most important factor to keep in mind is making sure your sunglasses provide enough protection from the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) rays.

woman wearing colorful sunglasses

Sunglasses and UV protection: Take a closer look this season

UV radiation, which comes from the sun (and from tanning beds), is what can cause harm to skin and eyes.

According to the American Optometric Association’s (AOA) 2014 American Eye-Q survey, 41 percent of buyers don’t check the UV protection level before purchasing sunglasses, and only 30 percent said UV protection is the most important factor when purchasing sunglasses — meaning that comes ahead of glare reduction/comfortable vision (27 percent), style (15 percent), price (14 percent) and fit (9 percent).

“The harmful effects of long-term exposure to UV are a real concern because it can cause damage to the eye, possibly resulting in cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, or an abnormal growth called Pterygium,” said Beth Kneib, OD, director of the AOA’s Clinical Resources Group.

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Short-term exposure to UV rays from a day at the beach, for example, can be serious and could lead to a condition known as photokeratitis, also known as “sunburn of the eye.”  Symptoms of photokeratitis include red eyes, a foreign-body sensation or gritty feeling in the eyes, extreme sensitivity to light and excessive tearing. These side effects are usually temporary and rarely cause permanent damage to the eyes, but to be sure overexposure is the only problem, patients should consult with their eye doctor if they have these symptoms.

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Kids need eye protection, too

heidi london sunglassesIn addition, the average child takes in approximately three times the annual UV exposure of the average adult and up to 80 percent of their lifetime exposure occurs before age 20. Unlike the lens found in an adult eye, which is more mature, a child’s lens cannot filter out UV rays as easily, causing damage to the retina.

“Exposure to UV rays can cause problems for people of all ages, but it is critical for children to protect their eyes since they are more transparent than an adult’s. By learning to protect their eyes early, they can possibly avoid UV damage,” said Dr Kneib.

What to look for in lenses and frames

For optimal eye sun-safety, the AOA recommends wearing sunglasses or contact lenses that offer appropriate UV protection, applying UV-blocking sunscreen and wearing a hat to keep direct sunlight off of the face and eyes. The AOA also recommends:

  • Lenses that block out 99 to 100 percent of both UV-A and UV-B rays.
  • Lenses that have a uniform tint, not darker in one area from another. Gradient lenses should lighten gradually with the bottom being lightest.
  • Lenses that are free of distortion and imperfection.
  • A frame that fits close to the eyes and contours to the shape of the face, in order to prevent exposure to UV radiation from all sides, even behind.
  • Prescription glasses with tints and full UV protection. While some contact lenses also offer UV protection, these should be worn with sunglasses to maximize protection.
  • Staying out of the sun during the peak UV exposure risk hours for the eyes, from 8 to 10 am and from 2 to 4 pm.
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Bonus features in sunglasses

There are also a number of lens and frame options that can enhance vision for particular activities, such as:

  • Polarized lenses, which reduce reflected glare from sunlight that bounces off snow or water and add comfort and enhance vision when cross-country skiing, fishing or driving.
  • “Blue-blocking” lenses help make distant objects easier to see, especially in snow or haze, which is great for skiers, boaters and hunters.
  • Polycarbonate lenses to provide impact protection, an important option for potentially hazardous work, sports and other activities.
  • Photochromic (transition) lenses that offer convenience since the lens darkens or lightens depending on the light exposure.

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